Why a call for decent summer clothing leads to heated reactions



Anne Vader, RD

Many schools are having the same discussion each year: what should be the limit for clothing? Photo ANP, Robin van Lonkhuijsen

Bare bellies, deep cleavages, and skirts that are much too short. Three school directors made the news because they asked their pupils not to come to school too naked. Why does such a call for decency lead to heated reactions?

The world has turned upside down, Rutgers, the Dutch knowledge centre on sexuality, thinks. Because: you should not address the one who wears the clothing, but those who take offence. “Otherwise, you make the girls responsible for the sexual behaviour that certain clothing might provoke in boys or men”, said a spokesperson of the knowledge centre in the Dutch daily Trouw.

The school directors (from Roermond, Amersfoort and Zwolle) were subjected to so much criticism that they no longer want to talk to the media. All three are shocked by the reactions and say that their words were misunderstood.

Basic limit

Wietske Kruyswijk of education agency “Weerbaar in Seksualiteit” (resilient in sexuality) can imagine the directors' appeal. “If I look around at an average school where we help with some guidance, the current fashion is more uncovered compared to other years.”

It's very difficult to set limits for teenagers at school. Photo ANP, Robin van Lonkhuijsen

Kruyswijk understands well that schools want to use a basic limit. But only announcing that limit is not desirable. “First, talk to your pupils. How do they see it? Do they have to be able to wear all kinds of clothes, or are there certain norms in certain situations?” According to her, a school can give a direction to what it considers desirable from that contact.

Belgium: Why are the rules only aimed at girls?

Mark Wallet, RD

In Belgium, an e-mail from the Montfortcollege in Rotselaar caused a stir this month. The school headmaster reminded pupils of the school rules prohibiting bare bellies and extremely short skirts and shorts. Pupil Beatrix Yavuz (14) sent an e-mail back to the headmaster, in which she made a point of pointing out that the e-mail was only aimed at girls and not at boys. Why were they never addressed about the so-called “pavement worker’s cleavage”? So, the measures would be sexist, according to Beatrix.

The letter went online, and the debate was soon sparked all over Belgium. At several schools, pupils took action against the rules and went to school scantily dressed.

However, school director Bart Schollen of Montfort College stood his ground and explained that “certain rules” are necessary. “We don’t think a school is an environment where you come in bikini and swimming trunks,” he told Flemish broadcaster VRT. “That is a consequence if you are going to extend that complete freedom.” He promised to talk to the pupils but said they would have to learn that some clothing is inappropriate in specific contexts.

Support for Beatrix, however, came from Belgian deputy minister Sarah Schlitz (Gender Equality, Equal Opportunities and Diversity). “The rules of secondary schools are often eccentric, but above all sexist”, she told the Walloon newspaper La Dernière Heure. Schools should hold their regulations up to the light of discrimination rules.

Sex education is about teaching pupils to take responsibility for themselves and others, she says. “You are not only focused on yourself. You also take the other person into account. In how you talk, how you behave, how you treat each other and, in my opinion, also in how you dress. This applies to both girls and boys”, she says about Rutgers’ reaction. At the same time, she finds it logical that especially girls are addressed. “Their clothes show much more skin than boys’ clothes.

For people who feel their freedom is being restricted, Kruyswijk advises them to talk to the teachers. “Then you hear how uncomfortable and complicated situations in schools sometimes get.”

School is not a beach

It is “very much of this age” that people do what they like, says etiquette expert Lilian Woltering. “That’s up to me. It is my life, isn’t it?” Still, according to her, dress codes are there for a reason. “They serve a purpose. Clothing should fit with the image and atmosphere at school. School is not a beach; you’re learning there. And you don’t want teachers and pupils to be distracted.”

Germany: Creating mutual understanding for appropriate clothing

Bertus Bouwman, RD

As soon as the temperatures rise in Germany, the likelihood increases that somewhere a discussion will break out about the “Kleiderordnung” in schools. A local news item, which then makes the whole country want to join in the debate.

In 2015, it concerned a secondary school in Horb am Neckar where the headmistress wrote to parents that girls, in particular, were coming to school dressed in “very provocative” clothes. Her solution: navel shirts and shorts that are too short, such as hot pants, are no longer allowed in the school. Pupils who do so must wear a huge shirt during the school day. The regulation was supposed to contribute to a “healthy school climate in which everyone feels comfortable and in which social and societal values are lived and promoted.”

The regional education ministry blew the whistle on the school. “A public school does not have the right to make its moral standards into the yardstick for an appropriate outfit.” Unless the attire disrupts order in classes, a spokesman said.

A well-known participant in the debate is Oliver Dickhäuser, from the chair of Educational Psychology at the University of Mannheim. According to him, what matters most is how the school handles the rules. “If pupils do not understand that they are not allowed to wear airy clothing at 30 degrees Celsius, the resistance will be great.” In Der Tagesspiegel, he tells of an experiment at a school in Würzburg where the dress code was drawn up in close consultation between teachers, parents and pupils. “That way, you create mutual understanding, and the discussion is quickly closed.”

The dress code also has to do with respect. “A lot of nudity can make people feel uncomfortable. We know that boys are easily upset and don’t pay attention anymore if girls are dressed too nude.”

School is not a beach. Dress codes serve a purpose. Photo EPA, Mak Remissa

With bare bottom on your bike

Woltering thinks those bare-belly shirts (“they look like bikinis”) are going too far. She would explain it to young people: “With such short, frayed shorts, you’re literally with your bare bottom on the bike. People might think the wrong things about that. And you can embarrass teachers because they don’t want to interfere with your choices, but it’s also awkward to look at.”

United Kingdom: Mandatory uniform food for discussion

Lieke Pippel, RD

Almost all pupils in the United Kingdom wear a school uniform. For boys, it generally consists of a shirt, tie and long trousers. Girls wear a skirt or long trousers and a blouse. This does not put an end to the controversy about clothing at school. On the contrary, school uniforms are the subject of much debate.

At the beginning of this month that 16-year-old Shane Richardson borrowed his sister Lexi’s school skirt. He protested against the school policy that forbade boys to wear shorts. In summer, boys feel “like we’re in a greenhouse”, Richardson told the British broadcaster BBC. The pupil’s appearance in a skirt at school led to a change in school policy within a month.

It is not only boys’ school uniforms that are regularly in the news. A school in Norwich came under fire last week for allegedly sexist advice to girls. The secondary school had sent a letter to parents telling them that girls must not come to school wearing skirts that are too short or coloured bras under their blouses.

Despite the longer school skirt they are offered, discussions about girls’ short dresses are taking place across the UK. A secondary school in Caerphilly in Wales, for example, banned all pupils from wearing a skirt at the beginning of this month. Only shorts or long trousers are now allowed. Other schools are advising girls to wear shorts under skirts.

People in the Netherlands are dressing more and more informally, observes the etiquette expert. Working from home during the corona pandemic only reinforces that trend. “People take last year’s casual style to school and the office. But there is a limit. I would disapprove of my child going to school in sweatpants, for example. Sportswear is for sports.”

France: Going to school dressed like a republican

Mark Wallet, RD

In France, the start of the new school year was immediately followed by a tough discussion on dress code. It all started with a banner at a “lycée” in the southwestern city of Dax, showing a navel jersey and an ultra-short skirt with a red cross through it. Underneath was the text: “Proper outfit required.”

A student made a mockery of it on social media, which set the stage for a nationwide protest by schoolchildren on September 14th. Dax’s problem turned out to be at many more French schools. Under the hashtag #Lundi14Septembre, pupils called on each other to come to school on that day dressed “inappropriately”. Groups of boys also declared their solidarity and came to school in navel jerseys.

Even the Minister of Education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, intervened in the matter, although this did not exactly bring calm. On the radio, he said that “everyone will understand that you have to be dressed correctly in class”, the French minister declared. “I would say that everyone should be dressed in a republican way.” That statement was soon the target of ridicule. After all, what is republican dress supposed to mean?

Dress in a republican way, that's always good. But it's not clear what it is. Photo AFP, Guillaume Souvant

Meanwhile, a poll by Ifop showed that most of the French population did support the minister’s main point. A ban on navel shirts in schools could count on the support of 55 per cent of French people in 2020, while 49 per cent also signed up for a ban on miniskirts. Ultra-short shorts could be banned by 56 per cent of the population.

This article was published previously in the Dutch Reformatorisch Dagblad on June 24th 2021.



Subscribe for an update, and receive a documentary and e-book for free.

Choose your subscriptions*

You may subscribe to multiple lists.